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  • Miwa Messer 4:00 pm on 2018/07/19 Permalink
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    The Ensemble Author Aja Gable on the Attempt to Say That Unsayable Thing 

    Four friends are bound by their art and their ambition in Aja Gabel’s snappy debut, The Ensemble. We were delighted by the author’s insights about friendship, passion, and loyalty; her characters’ messy truths; and her lively, light writing. There is, as one of our bookseller reviewers said, “WOW on every page.” We asked Aja how her debut novel began for her, and this is what she said:

    Long before I wrote a word of my novel, The Ensemble, which is about a professional string quartet, I wrote one short story about music. A Russian violinist, Stefan, must fill in for his deceased teacher, Sergei, at a concert in Hong Kong. In a dressing room above the concert hall, he frets about his new million-dollar violin and the violent political riots happening outside his window. The drama is high and slick, and the language has a tinge of the old-fashioned. The story’s confidence wavers (an imprint of its nascency), but passages about the music performance flicker in early resemblance to the passages about music in my novel.

    I dug the old story up recently because I’ve been trying to figure out the origin of my novel, when the idea first began to take root. Was it here? I wondered.

    I know a neat and tidy origin story would point to a moment of revelation, an article that changed me, or a piece of music that unfolded a novel plot. But it feels instead like I’ve carried The Ensemble around with me for years, that it grew inside me as I grew, twining and fusing with my body from the moment I was five, when I first began to play the cello and write stories. Over the years, as I filled notebooks with fantasies and cut my calluses on steel core strings, the enmeshment continued. By the time I entered writing school, still playing the cello on the side, it was complete.

    Because of that fusing, I didn’t write about music because writing about music felt like writing about my skin or my voice. What was there to say? It was just me.

    I wrote that short story about the Russian violinist because of a conversation I had with a teacher about writing a novel. Make it easy on yourself, she said. What do you know enough about to write 300 pages? This version of the “write what you know” advice hadn’t occurred to me before. Rereading the story now, I see why. My relationship to music was the most intimate relationship I had, shared with no one but other musicians who I played with. But I believed novels to be big, outsized, highly dramatic. I also believed people wanted that sense of symphonic gravitas in any story about classical music. So I wrote a story that had all of that: political strife, foreign locales, tortured Russian artists. It’s not a bad story, but in rereading, I struggled to find the beating heart of it. It didn’t feel like my novel.

    It wasn’t until a year later, alone on a writing retreat, that I decided to do what I’d been hesitant to do before. I unraveled the story of music that was braided inside me, and began to parse the strands, until I figured out what it was about. That intimate narrative I’d tended to and told to no one but myself was itself about intimacy. When you play music with someone, you come to know their artistic impulses, their breath and body, their secret ambitions and wayward desires. And as I put the threads back together on the page, it took on new life and grew again. There are no steely Russians and no mid-recital explosions in this one. Instead, there are subtler and equally earth-shattering moments: a cruel, tossed off phrase, heartbreak that morphs with time, the death of an absent mother, the loss of a best friend.

    In the end, it did become big. The tale of a collaborative life, lived through music, across decades, is inevitably expansive. But it didn’t become big because I’d intended to write an epic. I don’t think any great novel begins by being enamored of its bigness. What ultimately opened the door into this novel was, for me, what always draws me to any book: truth, recognition, heart, the attempt to say that unsayable thing.

    I am now able to see it: the daunting excavation of the internal story I’d tended to for years. I don’t think it’s the root of every novel, but it was for my first one. I look at that old short story, the one about Sergei and Stefan and the riots, and see a writer who wanted to do what she thought other people wanted to read. But I think now that we should always only be writing what we ourselves want to read. And even in that older story, what I gravitate toward are the scenes of music, Stefan’s uncertainty while playing, his love of the physical feeling of his violin, his fear of the outside pressures drowning out his concerto, his song.

    The Ensemble is on sale now.

    The post <i>The Ensemble</i> Author Aja Gable on the Attempt to Say That Unsayable Thing appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Miwa Messer 4:00 pm on 2018/07/10 Permalink
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    “Wonderfully Clear”: Christian Donlon on MS and parenting 

    “My daughter took her first steps on the day I was diagnosed—a juxtaposition so perfect, so trite, so filled with the tacky artifice of real life that I am generally too embarrassed to tell anybody about it.”

    Journalist Christian Donlon writes about his MS and his daughter’s development with incredible grace and candor in his memoir, The Inward Empire: Mapping the Worlds of Mortality and Fatherhood, a Summer 2018 Discover Great New Writers selection that’s often very funny despite its serious subject. We asked Christian how he keeps his sense of humor in the midst of chaos and pain, and this is what he said:

    My daughter Leontine, who is now almost five, has just discovered jokes. Well, it is a partial discovery at least. She gets the two-part format of many jokes and she gets the social anxiety involved. (I can tell, after she has said the joke’s opener, that she is filled with tension regarding the closer; she understands innately that getting a joke right is a terribly serious business.) But I don’t know if she knows why the jokes she has learned are funny—why it is funny, say, that the way to get Pikachu onto a bus is to poke him on—and she doesn’t understand that a joke is a bit like a firework: it can only go off once with any particular audience.

    The thing is, jokes are hardly essential with a girl like Leon. She has been making me laugh since she was born, it seems. Since she could express herself I got a sense that here was a girl who saw the world in a slightly different way, who would watch most things out of the corner of her eye and find them ridiculous. Ridiculous and strange. Out walking on the way to school recently, my wife and Leon found one of Leon’s name labels long detached from whatever bag or lunchbox it had once been fixed to and blowing around in the wind. “That’s strange?” Leon asked, more for confirmation of her reading of it than anything else. And then: “I love it when things are strange.”

    I think my daughter’s presence in my life probably explains why people sometimes tell me that I have written a funny book, or rather that my book has made them laugh despite themselves. I am always delighted to hear this, even if it was not entirely my intention. On the surface my book is about fairly serious things: it’s about my diagnosis, shortly after my daughter’s birth, with multiple sclerosis, a maddeningly unpredictable and frequently brutal neurological disease in which the protective coatings of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are accidentally shredded by the immune system. When you have MS, people start to describe you as a sufferer, and so I assumed that I had written a sufferer’s book.

    If I haven’t, it’s because of Leon’s influence. Because of my fantastic, unprecedented, bewildering, and glorious daughter who has grown up alongside my disease, and whose explosion of life and new ideas and new cognitive abilities has been a vital pleasure to me as my own mental equipment has started to falter. I have wanted to mope theatrically at times, but it is hard to mope when you have a daughter who wants you to show them how to draw the really hard parts of a pony – always the back hooves—and who finds your moping hilarious anyway. Even at its worst, when I am stuck in bed with sore legs or muddled vision—the sheer range of things that MS can do is baffling—I can hear her elsewhere in our house, arguing with a cat or mis-singing the latest chart songs with a wonderful scatterbrained innocence.

    Practically, I would say two things about all this. Firstly, while I worry about my own diminishing agency as an MS patient who is also a father of a young child, Leon makes it wonderfully clear what my priorities are, and she gives me the humour I think you need to hold onto when you have been dropped into the bewildering world of neurology, where simple things are suddenly not so simple, and when the entire landscape around you can occasionally feel like a Victorian stage magician’s set filled with trick staircases and tilted mirrors.

    Secondly, I was talking with another MS patient the other day and we remarked on the fact that public understanding of this disease has progressed over the last few years from pretty much nothing to an appreciation that MS is a very complicated thing. Then, public understanding has sort of halted, and perhaps people are tempted to look away from MS because complicated things often make them feel foolish and powerless and sad.

    Humour, though, or at least a certain amount of easy wit, or a willingness to admit that some awful things do have undeniably funny aspects, might be a good way to make people look again at a thing they have already decided they don’t want to look at. A sense of humour—often, more specifically, my daughter’s sense of humour—has not just helped me understand my new world a little more, it might allow other people in, too.


    The post “Wonderfully Clear”: Christian Donlon on MS and parenting appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Miwa Messer 6:00 pm on 2018/06/19 Permalink
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    Social Creature Author Tara Isabella Burton on the Person She Invented Online 

    Things happen when Lavinia’s around—and while it seems like Louise has no idea what she’s gotten herself into with her new BFF, she knows she’s having the time of her life…

    Tara Isabella Burton’s wild debut novel Social Creature is Gossip Girl meets Gone Girl, creepy in a good way, and highly entertaining in a can’t-stop-reading-way. We asked Tara to take us behind the scenes of her fabulous, noir novel, and this is what she said.

    I post too much on the internet. I am witty (I hope) on Twitter; I wear extravagantly ridiculous vintage clothing on Instagram.

    I do not know how not to do this.

    I grew up, like many bookish and socially awkward and intensely lonely girls of my generation, extremely online. At ten, I was frenetically posting in the “religion and faith” message board on AOL (RIP). By thirteen, I was narrating my urge to live a poetic life on Livejournal: an impassioned diary I kept for a good decade. All of the writers I admired as a young teenager—Oscar Wilde, Anaïs Nin, Djuna Barnes—lived their lives as works of art, and I wanted this, too. The Internet—expansive, as-yet-uncolonized by the capitalist dictates of #influencers and purchasable followers—was the place on which I felt most at home. Maybe I did not, could not, live (as I longed to) in late nineteenth-century Paris, or the speakeasies of the jazz age, but in this kaleidoscope of pixels, I could pretend to.

    The person I invented online—or, more accurately, the person I grew into online—wasn’t just an alternate version of myself: an outright falsehood. She was a genuine extension of the best of myself—I am better, after all, writing words with care than saying them out loud extemporaneously. She was the person I most wanted to be. My online persona was the best of me.

    St. Ignatius of Loyola famously exhorted those struggling with belief to “perform the acts of faith and the faith will come.” For me, my online life was the means by which I, unsure of who I was but sure of who I wanted to be, first flexed the muscles of my being. I performed, not to transform, but to become.

    In writing Social Creature, I didn’t just want to write an outright condemnation of online culture, or of social media, or of the desire to create oneself, to live, as Lavinia says, with MORE POETRY!!! I wanted to capture both the longing—genuine, transformative, and spiritually necessary—to live “poetically”, and how that longing can play out, in a beautiful way, on social media. I wanted, too, to capture the dark side of this: what it means for two women without a strong sense of internal self to try to define themselves through externalities: through clothing, through Instagram likes, through party attendance, and—most importantly—through one another.

    Writing it required me to take a difficult look at myself and the persona I presented to the world, online and off. At the best of times, I am inherently performative—I like telling stories; I like making people laugh: I like having stories to tell. But telling the story of Louise and Lavinia in Social Creature challenged me to ask questions about myself—how reliant am I on the attention, or the adulation, of others? Who would I be if I were not only not extremely online but not online at all?

    The relationship between Lavinia and Louise—by turns romantic and obsessive, but invariably toxic—is the story of two women. But it’s also the story of what it means to learn to be yourself. It’s a lesson I, personally, have not fully learned. But it’s my hope that, through Social Creature, I have—at least—convincingly faked it.

    The post <i>Social Creature</i> Author Tara Isabella Burton on the Person She Invented Online appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Miwa Messer 1:30 pm on 2018/06/05 Permalink
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    Oprah’s New Book Club Pick Is an Unforgettable Story of Faith, Hope, and Justice 

    The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin, is the unforgettable and inspiring true story of a wrongly convicted man who survived solitary confinement on death row for more than three decades—and it’s the latest pick of the Oprah Book Club.

    Thirty-three years ago, Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested.

    The charges: Capital murder. Two counts.

    Anthony Ray Hinton was convicted and sentenced to death via electrocution.

    But he was innocent.

    Anthony Ray Hinton’s nightmare begins with a horrible case of mistaken identity; he knew he was innocent, and believed it was only a matter of time until the mistake was uncovered and he was released. But the judicial system didn’t believe him. Living under a system with a separate standard for poor black men, the truth was not enough to set twenty-nine-year-old Hinton free.

    The Sun Does Shine is, ultimately, a triumphant example of a man reclaiming own life, as best he can under horrific circumstances. Hinton’s first three years on death row were marked by silence, anger, and despair. But then he made a decision, to not only accept his fate on death row, but to live on death row. And that’s when this becomes a remarkable story of acceptance, fortitude, compassion—and humor.

    This is also the story of our country’s deeply flawed judicial system—separate and not equal—and the realities of systemic racial bias and its deep impact on all of us. Hinton is one of “the longest-serving condemned prisoners facing execution in America to be proved innocent and released,” according to Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who worked to secure Hinton’s freedom. (Stevenson is also the bestselling author of Just Mercy, and wrote the foreword to The Sun Does Shine.)

    The Sun Does Shine is a thoughtful and deeply emotional book that’s sure to spark conversation, which makes it a terrific book club pick. As you’ll see in the exclusive clip below, featuring the author and Oprah Winfrey, Anthony Ray Hinton’s story is a powerful one, full of faith, hope, and love.

    The Sun Does Shine is on sale now.

    The post Oprah’s New Book Club Pick Is an Unforgettable Story of Faith, Hope, and Justice appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Miwa Messer 11:00 am on 2018/04/04 Permalink
    Tags: behind a mask, christine mangan, , , helen oeyemi, joan lindsay, , my cousin rachel, , , tangerine, the icarus girl, the little stranger   

    Tangerine Author Christine Mangan Shares 5 Gothic Novels to Read Now 

    With nods to The Talented Mr. Ripley and the gothic novels of Daphne Du Maurier, Christine Mangan’s Tangerine sent shivers down our spines. Tangier, 1956, a city on the verge of revolution—isolated and overwhelmed, trapped in a loveless marriage, this is not what Alice expected for her post-collegiate life. But when a lost friend returns…

    Tangerine had the booksellers who read for our Discover Great New Writers program on the edge of their seats—and craving more gothic stories, so we asked Christine what we should read next.

    Haunted mansions, wind-swept moors, supernatural occurrences. I have always loved Gothic tales and the tropes that define them—so much so, that I spent four years researching and writing about eighteenth-century Gothic literature for my postgraduate degree. And while I’ll always be a fan of Ann Radcliffe, Eliza Parsons and other contemporary authors of that time, my absolute favorite Gothic stories pick up a bit later, beginning in the nineteenth century with the Bronte sisters. Below is a list of Gothic tales that, while less well-known than Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, are still just as delightfully Gothic.

    Behind a Mask, by Louisa May Alcott
    Most people don’t tend to associate Alcott with the Gothic, but her work prior to Little Women revels in the type of gothic tales that Jo March is known for. This novella is the story of the ultimate femme fatale, Jean Muir, who disguises herself as a young, innocent governess in order to ingratiate herself into the Coventry family home—and later, as the owner of the Coventry estate.

    My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier
    A particular favorite of mine, this novel contains all the very best Gothic tropes: wild landscapes, a mysterious death, and an unforgettable femme fatale. The novel begins as the narrator, Philip, learns that his recently married Uncle Ambrose has died while traveling abroad in Italy. A good portion of the novel is then spent with Philip preparing to meet his Uncle’s new wife, though Rachel herself doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Despite his best intentions to hate her, Philip finds himself becoming more and more enthralled with his Uncle’s widow—there’s just the pesky little question of whether or not she had something to do with Ambrose’s death.

    Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay
    Set in the early 1900s, this Australian Gothic tale begins with a picnic taken by an All Girls’ Boarding School at Hanging Rock, in celebration of Valentine’s Day. What is meant to be an innocent outing quickly turns tragic as three girls and a teacher go missing, without any clues as to what has happened to them. Empathizing the Gothic wilds of the Australian landscape, the novel details the far-reaching effects that the missing girls have on the lives of those involved. Tip: In order to avoid spoilers, don’t read the forward (or any other information) until after you’ve finished the novel.

    The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
    Waters’ fifth novel follows the Ayres family in the years after WWII as they struggle to retain a semblance of the life that they once led. Told from the point of view of Dr. Faraday, an outsider who has always envied the lives of those in the mansion, this gothic tale explores questions of class in a postwar England as it examines the family ensconced in their now crumbling mansion, haunted by ghosts of the past.

    The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi
    Questions of identity abound in this Gothic tale of doubling. At the heart of the novel is Jessamy Harrison, a troubled eight-year-old girl who can’t seem to make connections with anyone around her, until a family trip to Nigeria where she meets TillyTilly. Ecstatic to have finally found a friend, things take a sinister turn as Jess begins to question her new friend’s intentions—and whether or not she is, in fact, real.

    Tangerine is on B&N bookshelves now.

    The post <i>Tangerine</i> Author Christine Mangan Shares 5 Gothic Novels to Read Now appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

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